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Truly a pipe dream

April 19, 2012

THIS is odd, if not outright bizarre — Pakistan, Afghanistan and India talking about the pricing formula of a unit of Turkmen gas to be conveyed by a pipeline across war-torn Afghanistan. Impressive was the seriousness with which delegates from the three countries discussed the issue in Islamabad. Afghanistan will charge Pakistan and India for hosting the pipeline across its mountainous mass, while Islamabad will in turn ask New Delhi to pay it a like amount. There was no agreement during the two-day negotiations that concluded on Tuesday. The three parties are to meet again at a date not yet specified, and if they fail to agree on a formula, the Asian Development Bank will play mediator. Assuming that the three sides will develop a consensus at their next meeting or, failing that, the ADB’s good offices will clinch a deal in Ashgabat next month, some pertinent questions deserve to be asked: is peace around the corner in Afghanistan? Will the American withdrawal by 2014 — unlikely to be total — be followed by a lasting peace? Will gas start flowing through the TAPI pipeline by December 2016 as hoped for? If all this is in the realm of uncertainty, doesn’t common sense suggest opting for the relatively hassle-free and terrain-wise easy Iran pipeline?

India’s stand on the TAPI project defies logic, if we consider its stance on the other pipeline. New Delhi used to complain — before it buckled under American pressure and ditched the three-state project — that it was worried about the security of supply from Pakistan. Do not the same security concerns apply to the TAPI pipeline? While the TAPI project is dependent upon the chimera that is peace in Afghanistan, an IPI pipeline can become a reality in a short time, because Tehran has already laid the pipeline across Iranian territory. If India reconsiders its decision to renege on the IPI project, gas can start flowing from Iran to India via Pakistan in a relatively short time. Pakistan, our eastern neighbour must accept, will be there in any case, whether India opts for TAPI or IPI or for both.